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on February 7, 2005
Linda R. Monk, author of _The Bill of Rights: A User's Guide_, has done an amazingly fine job with this book. If you want a one-volume introduction to the Constitution of the United States, this is it. (As a lawyer I try to keep an eye out for books I can recommend to people who want to learn how U.S. law works. This one and Jay Feinman's _Law 101_ are two of the best.)

In just over two hundred pages, Monk walks the reader through the text of the entire document (including the Bill of Rights), giving history, relevant cases, and an overview of competing interpretations. Sidebars present relevant quotations from, well, lots of people -- Charlton Heston on the Second Amendment, Ted Nugent on the importance of copyright, and tons of others. Monk makes her selections from across the political spectrum and she carefully refrains from taking sides herself. Terms that won't be familiar to the typical reader are defined in the margins.

Despite what you may have heard, her presentation is neither 'liberal' nor 'revisionist'. (For example, her presentation on the Second Amendment is nicely handled; we hear from all sides, but Monk makes clear that a federal appellate court has held that the right to bear arms is unambiguously an _individual_ right.) In fact, she does remarkably well at presenting all major points of view on each issue within a very short space, and she doesn't slight anyone; any reviewer who thinks otherwise didn't read the book very carefully (if at all).

Don't let the noise from the peanut gallery scare you off. People who don't want a 'living constitution' don't have a clue what it would be like to have a dead one. (For one thing, libertarians -- of whom I am one -- would be miserable. The police wouldn't need warrants to tap phone lines; electronic eavesdropping wasn't a 'search' until 1967, when _Katz v. U.S._ expanded the Fourth Amendment to protect us wherever and whenever we have a 'reasonable expectation of privacy'. And yes, that case is covered in here -- along with _Olmstead_, which it overruled, and _Kyllo_, which expands it to cover thermal imaging.)

Highly recommended to anyone who wants to know what the Constitution says and means. And that should include all Americans -- even the ones who already have copies of the Cato Institute's Constitution and Declaration booklet.
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VINE VOICEon March 31, 2003
It would sound like hyperbole to say that this is a book every American should read, but it really isn't. In around 300 pages, Monk has put together an excellent book about the Constitution: informative enough so most readers will get something out of it but not so technical that it will turn those readers off.
Monk explains every sentence in the Constitution and the amendments, giving historical background and showing how the clauses and articles have been interpreted and acted on over the years. She remains objective but does not shy from controversy; when discussing such hot button issues as gun control, abortion and the death penalty, she presents both sides of the arguments, and by providing excerpts of writings by others, allows other opinions to be shown.
So why should every American read this book. Simply because this is a great introduction to the document that dictates life in the United States. An informed American is better than an ignorant one, especially in the voting booth. You may not be a full-fledged Constitutional scholar when you finish this book, but you will at least understand this document a bit better.
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on April 9, 2003
Monk's book proved to be as easily read as it is profound. A facinating trip through the constitution for the layman that never failed to intrigue and surprise. Historical documents, quotes from our founding fathers and photography add a real sense of history to the book that kept me wanting to skip ahead for the next big surprise. I walked away from the book with a more thorough knowledge of the words that have shaped this country and the struggles others have had to fight to keep this document alive. The Words We Live By should be mandatory reading in this country's schools and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the past present or future of America.
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on April 9, 2003
Monk's book proved to be as easily read as it is profound. A facinating trip through the constitution for the layman that never failed to intrigue and surprise. Historical documents, quotes from our founding fathers and photography add a real sense of history to the book that kept me wanting to skip ahead for the next big surprise. I walked away from the book with a more thorough knowledge of the words that have shaped this country and the struggles others have had to fight to keep this document alive. The Words We Live By should be mandatory reading in this country's schools and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the past present or future of America.
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Linda Monk's book on the American Constitution, `The Words We Live By', is a wonderfully accessible and interesting introduction to the foundational document of the American polity. She starts in her introductory material by presenting the Constitution not as a dry and dusty piece of parchment to be revered but essentially ignored, but rather as an engagement of peoples in open conversation, something that can and should have an impact on the daily life and work of all Americans. Drawing inspiration from Judge Learned Hand, she states, `For the Constitution to have meaning, it must be not only the words we recite, but also the words we live by.'

Monk recognises the importance of the Constitution, and its unique place in history, but does not give it false priority by forgetting its historic underpinnings. The founders who gathered in convention in 1787 brought their backgrounds and training with them, as well as a sense of self-government and an awareness of what might work and not work in the newly formed nation, gained from 150 years of essentially self-rule as colonies.

The framers of the Constitution were not under the illusion that they were creating a perfect document, as Monk states, quoting Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes - `it is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.' The preamble of the Constitution, perhaps the best know part, strives to form `a more perfect union', not a perfect one.

Monk draws information from the Federalist papers, other documents contemporary with the Constitution, and artwork and illustrations to help the text come alive. For each section, be they preamble, article, or amendment, Monk first sets forth the text, and then provides a passage-by-passage commentary. Often this refers to court cases, government structures and procedures, and significant events that helped to shape the Constitution, even as it has worked to shape American society. There are side notes with definitions for key words and terms, quotable quotes from historians as well as historical figures, and text boxes separate from the main text body to draw particular emphasis on points of greater interest in contemporary issues (George Will on the question of term limits for Congress; Benjamin Franklin on property qualifications for voting; etc.).

Monk ends as she began, writing of the Constitution as words to live by in the future. She characterises the ongoing debate as one between different ideas of freedom - some see freedom as freedom from something (government intrusion and more), whereas others see freedom as freedom to achieve something. How this will ultimately be played out on a constitutional level is speculation, as is the conjecture on what may become future amendments to the Constitution.

Overall, this was a fun book to read, informative and interesting. Monk draws text box and side-bar quotations and examples from across the political spectrum and across American history, to give a reasonable balance toward the issues politically. This is useful particularly for high school and undergraduate civics and political science classes, as well as American history classes. It is also good for general readers, and has a layout that shows an awareness of the importance of different colours, images, typefaces and more for keeping visual interest in addition to interest in content.

This will help one live by the words more fully.
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on November 14, 2007
The Words We Live By is a readily accessible, quick reference analysis of the Constitution of the United States of America. It makes use of a functional format (that resembles a text book) as well as interesting little anecdotes that restore a portion of the textual and historical romance that you naturally lose in any abridgment. It presents the analytical and background material in a manner that easily correlates to the corresponding text within the Constitution. Taking a "one bite at a time" type of approach, The Words We Live By briefly examines our Constitution in multiple contexts--a refreshing little jaunt, through a critical piece of our heritage.

Linda Monk employs an informative method in her writing; it kind of resembles a letter that you'd write home, describing your new surroundings. She tells things, quite technically, "how they are," and then proceeds to give some necessary background. In her own words, "the Constitution is also the product of an ongoing conversation among Americans about the meaning of freedom in their daily lives."(Monk 9) Frequently she goes beyond glossary or the bare minimum historical information to reveal glimpses of the fascinating complexity of it all. I didn't always feel edified by the sidebar comments made, but they were varied and presented a broad spectrum of things one wouldn't normally have considered. I didn't find this book to be constructed to lead the reader to any one opinion. While personally I don't care too much for her type of voice, she did employ her method very well, and it effectively brought out appealing details of the study of our history.

The book begins by establishing some common ground with a general introduction, as does each section. The chapters begin with the section of the Constitution that is to be analyzed. Linda Monk then breaks that section down into a few lines of the text which she explicates in a few paragraphs. It's easy to find reference for difficult or uncommon terms, as they are set aside with a brief explanation in the margins, near to where they are discussed in the main body of the text. The pictures and comics, on most of the pages, make it easy to interpret or find specific points in the ongoing discussion. Strewn throughout the chapters are these lovely, little, purple boxes that contain examples, outside opinions, or related historical/current events. This leads us to the second, main characteristic of the book

One strength to Monk's analysis is the variety in connections it makes between the constitutional text and our history and current events. The comparisons made tend to be objective, for the most part, as well they should be. She doesn't come out and say, "Here's an example of the elastic clause, and by the way, this is what the answer is by the Constitution!" Rather, she presents specific examples and then connects the reader with what parts of the constitution they pertain to. A complaint I had of this, was that I felt certain issues presented were connected to more sections of the Constitution than were mentioned. Considering the scope of this work, though, Monk's analysis meets reasonable expectations. Even though I didn't find that all of the tidbits presented by Monk were necessarily helpful or appropriate to the current discussion, they did serve their purpose well. Without such tangents, an analytical breakdown of this legal document would have not been as engaging, to say the least. I found this aspect to be the book's greatest strength as well as weakness.

Monk's conversational manner brings out the richness of our heritage in an interesting way. Her discussion holds a bit of a story telling air to it but puts an atypical tilt on things. While not quite as dramatic as a pure historical narrative would have been, it sheds some additional light on our views as a culture. It follows a form comparative to a philosophical narrative; that is, it tells the story of the message or idea that defines America rather than looking over a complete, chronological sequence of events. This development leads us to ponder what the motivation is exactly for our political and ethical convictions. The text evokes an honest question: "Did we do the right things in the past?" and based on the answer to that, "What parts of our history and Constitution can we look to as `words to live by?'" There seems to be a popular trend in America to dig up the dirt in our past. I found Monk's questions to be quite refreshing compared to the historical mud-slinging I've seen so often. I didn't find her sheltering any skeletons in our closet, and her questions/observations posed were respectful and fair.

A theme throughout the book is how our Constitution has changed--hopefully towards liberty and justice. In addition to the original constitution, all of the amendments are annotated. In most cases a brief history is given that explains the context pertinent to that given amendment. Then, (in some cases more than others) Monk attempts to address some of the arguments for and against that amendment. Numerous Supreme Court rulings are used which partially illustrate the aftermath of the amendments. This is also done within the analysis of the main body of the Constitution, though, I am a little disappointed that very little of the general aftermath is discussed. The analysis on the amendments section seemed, to me, to be more interpretive than critical or informative. Very little time is spent, in most cases, on how a specific amendment changed the political scene. In all fairness to the author, though, it would be difficult to make any general statement like that without expressing bias.

The book has very little in the way of a formal conclusion; it lasts less than one page. Most of that one page is quotations from other authors. It shouldn't come as a surprise to the reader that Linda Monk doesn't pass any final judgment. She makes two statements in summary of what she tried to do with her book. First, an inquiry about the future: "What amendments might come next in the U. S. Constitution?" What will the future hold, and how much of that will rely on us. Stemming off this thought she closes, leaving us with the charge "To decide for ourselves what freedom is. That is the greatest gift that our Constitution gives us--a way to decide, along with our fellow citizens, what words we will live by." (Monk 263) That seems to summarize The Words We Live By in my mind. While I did want to see more in the way of history and general, macro analysis, I can't deny that this book served its purpose as stated from these sentences. I would recommend this book to anyone approaching voting age or who feels that they don't have an interest in this nation. Most people who read this book will come away with an increased sense of their responsibility and power to make a difference. It will increase one's desire to be aware and be actively engaged in the future formation of our law.
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on May 19, 2004
Today I'm making up for years of avoiding history because the the classes I took in school demanded memorization of facts and dates, based on history-in-a-box principles. I've come to realize that history represents the same kind of confusing mixture of pro and con, give and take, good and evil that today's social, political and economic issues do. That fascinates me, and now I can't get enough of history -- yesterday's and today's.
That's the reason I find "The Words We Live By" both a great text and a great read. Linda Monk uses people's quotes and stories that bring the Constitution alive as a document that affects our lives in ways we seldom recognize.
The quotes from Ben Franklin, from a black soldier from Louisiana fighting for his rights in the Civil War, from Norma McCorvey, the real Jane Roe in the Roe v. Wade -- and dozens more -- help me understand the real people who have created the essence and strength of America's government.
If this book had been available to me in my high school's American History class, I would have loved history from the beginning. I think it should be in every American History classroom in the U.S.
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on September 18, 2004
This is a great book, especially for introducing advanced junior high and senior high kids to the US Constitution and the issues involved, or for adults who want a good overview of the Constitution, its meaning, and the sides of each issue.

It contains quotes from founding fathers and from famous and ordinary citizens from revolutionary period to the present.

The author does a good job of impartially presenting different sides of the issues.

I wish the author had included the large numbers of violations of 4th Amendment (search and seizure) that have occurred to families who have chosen to educate their children at home, even when parents have indicated at the door the need for social workers and school personnel to have a valid search warrant. Such information can be found a [...] , particularly at [...] . This is a very real and current battle being waged for the rights of citizens that is guaranteed by the 4th amendment.

If rights are denied to the few, the rights of all are in danger.

Anyway, this is an interesting book, and does a good job of explaining the meaning of the constitution step-by-step, and of including controversies surrounding each issue.
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on July 16, 2004
To put it simply but emphatically, The Words We Live By: Your Annotated Guide To The Constitution by Linda R. Monk should be in every school and community library collection in America. Divided into two major sections (Part I: The Constitution Of The United States; Part II: Amendments To The Constitution Of The United States), the highly readable, easy to assimilate text is enhanced with occasion b/w photography. From high-school students fulfilling school assignments about the Constitution, to adults wanting to refresh themselves with respect to national issues of controversy with reference to Constitutional rights and responsibilities (especially with issues arising from the current "War on Terrorism" and "The Patriot Act"), The Words We Live By is perfectly suited as an informed and informative reference.
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VINE VOICEon September 5, 2004
I really liked this book and I feel like a better American for having taken the time too learn more about the document that made America the democracy envied around the world. I believe that every American should take it upon themselves to learn about their constitution instead of listening to what the talking heads and politicians tell them what it says. Maybe then we wouldn't have some of the problems we have. Now, I tend to be a liberal/progressive individual politically, but even I found some bias in the author's opinions, especially concerning the 2nd amendment, but that's what is so great about living in a free society: you can make up your own mind about such things.
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